Jean-François Richet directs the terse Mel Gibson vehicle Blood Father with eyes on reclamation and violence as cleansing force. The 2016 movie features a screenplay by Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff and is based on Craig’s novel of the same name. It casts a dry swath through America, painting a picture of contrast and hostility and lives forgotten.
Blood Father is a little on the nose in its redemptive spell-weaving. But given the brevity and perhaps even a few lowered expectations, the context is surprisingly rich. Richet can pull qualitative meaning out of Gibson’s personal quest, using a forthright Taken-esque narrative to propel him to the appearance of blood and sweat.
Gibson is John Link, a former badass who did time and is now living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. His daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) has been missing since she was 14 and is with her gangster boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna). Things go from bad to worse when Lydia accidentally shoots Jonah and runs from his gang.
She at last contacts her father, who takes her to his home. The gang isn’t far behind, so John is on a mission to protect the now 17-year-old. This puts him in connection with various fixtures from his past, like a collector of Nazi memorabilia (Michael Parks) and a few of his compatriots in from prison.
The familiar storyline takes on unique meaning with Gibson in the lead role and it’s hard to shake his efforts on a personal level. At one point, his character says “You can’t be a prick all your life and just say nevermind.” Is it an apology? Is it an explanation? Is it the sad reaching of a sinner past his save-by date?
Those questions are more existential than any 88-minute actioner could answer, but one gets the sense that Gibson’s stretching matters. Sometimes he stretches and it feels like desperation, like when he trashes some Nazi and confederate memorabilia. “Still backing the losers, I see,” he says.
Gibson spends most of his movie bearing the weight of a salt-and-pepper beard, but he doffs it when the fur really starts to fly and for a moment it feels like it’s 1987 all over again. Is he turning back the clock? Is he asking the audience to turn back the clock?
There are other aspects to Blood Father that don’t hinge on questions about the star’s penance, but these are decidedly less interesting. Richet flirts with American absurdity in the beginning when Lydia shows up at a store to buy bullets and isn’t allow to buy smokes because she’s too young. “Just the bullets,” she says.
And Blood Father does at least try to give her character more gravitas than, say, Bryan Mills’ kid. Lydia curses a blue streak, just like dad, and arrives with a coke habit and a fondness for playing the clarinet. She needs saving, but everyone does in Richet’s world.
Of course, those who do the saving pay the price. William H. Macy is among them, but Gibson’s John is the sacrificial lamb of import and that’s okay. He can (and will) hurl himself on the altar. Is he searching for mercy? That question, like all the others, makes Blood Father even more compelling as a bullet-holed piece of art.